In the newfound arena of social media as activism, few hashtags have generated as much buzz as #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, which has been circulating around Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Still, the trending hashtag was several hours old before Alexis Nwaiwu, a 19-year-old sophomore at Georgia State University, decided to post.
It wasn’t necessarily Michael Brown’s photo that inspired her. Rather, it was a news image of Brown – whose shooting by Ferguson, Mo., police has caused riots – juxtaposed with that of James Holmes, the Colorado theater shooter, that enraged her.
Someone posted the photo of Brown in his red Nike tank top flashing a peace sign. The headline, taken from a news site, read: “Police: Michael Brown Struggled With Officer Before Shooting.”
On top of that was a photo of Holmes, wearing a tie in what looks like a class picture. The headline: “Theater Shooting Suspect Was Brilliant Science Student.”
“I just thought it was interesting how they portrayed someone who is Caucasian as a brilliant scholar. Who was a mass murderer,” Nwaiwu said. “Michael Brown is shown as a thug because he was throwing up a peace sign.”
Brown was shot and killed last weekend after an encounter with a police officer in his hometown. His death has not only sparked unrest in Ferguson, to the point where President Barack Obama issued a statement, but social media has also exploded, picking up his cause.
Nwaiwu, a varsity cheerleader at GSU, also picked up his cause, posting a picture of herself laughing at a party flashing two peace signs. Next to it is a smiling image of Nwaiwu in her South Cobb High School graduation robe.
“The one at the party with a peace sign portrays my generation,” she said. “But don’t get it confused. I still graduated with honors from high school. I am in college. I am a cheerleader and I make good grades. But the media will always show one side of you.”
After the fatal shooting of Brown, 18, several media outlets used what many said was a distorted image of him taken from his Twitter account – casual, bordering on menacing. They argue that a majority of his photos show a different side, like broad smiles, hearty laughs and the tenderness of high school graduation photos. He was set to begin college on Monday.
Brown’s death comes nearly 2 1/2 years after the shooting of Trayvon Martin and about 13 months after George Zimmerman was acquitted at trial in the Martin case. More recent episodes that fueled the Michael Brown protests: the videotaped death of Eric Garner at the hands of New York City police, and the second-degree murder verdict against Theodore Wafer. Wafer shot Renisha McBride, 19, after she knocked on his door after crashing her car.
“The assumption is that black males are predators and because of that perceived threat as a predator, you can do anything to them,” said David Wall Rice, chairman of the psychology department at Morehouse College. “You can gun them down and not be worried about being convicted, like with Trayvon. You can ask what Michael Brown was doing wrong, instead of what was the person with the gun doing wrong?”
Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit school for journalism in St. Petersburg, Fla., said in a statement posted on the school’s website that the hashtag campaign forces people and news organizations to re-examine how images are received and perceived.
“No single image can define an individual. It is possible for an image to be accurate, real and unaltered and still not be a true depiction of who that person is,” Tompkins said. “A booking photo could be a single image of a person at the worst moment of his or her life. A wedding photo could be that same person at the best moment of his/her life. Both are extremes. Seek context.”
Since the hashtag campaign started, the phrase “iftheygunnedmedown” has been used on Twitter more than 158,000 times, according to The New York Times. Many of those posted similar photos with similar stories.
Eric Deggans, television critic for National Public Radio and the author of “Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation,” said the use of social media, particularly among African-Americans, has given voice to people who might have otherwise been silenced.
“With social media, we get to tell our story,” Deggan said. “We don’t have to depend on the editor of The New York Times having empathy for our stories. We can put up a blog post or Tweet that reflects our attitude and it reaches millions of people in a way more potent than The New York Times.”
Quamisha Desroches, a 2013 Spelman College graduate now working in the Dominican Republic as a Peace Corps health volunteer, posted a photo of herself in shorts, a T-shirt and shades getting ready for a paint party next to one from the day she became the first person in her family to earn a college degree.
“Someone may see that picture and think I am a promiscuous young girl, who wears revealing clothing and parties every night,” she said. “But I am a 23-year-old virgin. A respectable and college-educated young woman. I know when and how to have fun and while sometimes I may wear provocative clothing, I also know what it means to be professional. Oftentimes people look at a picture, but leave out all of its context.”
Terry Bembry Jr., who played four years of basketball at Houston Baptist University, took a more subtle approach. In one photo, he is wearing a hoodie, although it is down. He seems uninterested in the camera. He might need a haircut and a shave. In the companion photo, he’s smiling. Clean-shaven. Fresh haircut. Pressed shirt and tie.
“Being a black man in America, I’m already at a disadvantage and that no matter how well we may be doing for ourselves and no matter how well we present ourselves, there will always be someone or a group of people trying to bring us down and taint our image,” said Bembry, 24, who works for an oil and gas company in Texas. “That’s what the hashtag is all about. Nobody is perfect, no matter what our skin color is, but African-Americans seem to catch the most hell from the white community in these situations.”
Morehouse’s Rice, who teaches a course called “Black men, Black boys and the Psychology of Modern Media,” recalls the teachings of W.E.B. Du Bois to provide a historical context. Du Bois, who taught at Atlanta University at the turn of the last century, pioneered the concept of “double consciousness,” which refers to the psychological challenge of reconciling an African heritage with a European upbringing and education.
Or as Du Bois put it in his landmark “The Souls of Black Folk”: “This sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
Rice said black people shouldn’t have to worry about which photo of them might be used and argues that both images contribute to a more complete picture.
“That really does add to the complexity of how black men are viewed in the United States,” Rice said. “The media reducing black men to one staid image they are comfortable with, while ignoring the complexity of the wholeness of who black men are – it should not be a question of which one, but rather showing the whole person.”
Tarshia Stanley, chairwoman of the Spelman College English Department, said that while she agrees that the hashtag campaign has been positive, she cautions about it ultimately being regulated to a slogan that “re-inscribes images that were troublesome to start with.”
“We have to, as a community, think about these issues of safely and violence toward young black men, particularly coming from authority,” Stanley said. “We have to get a real dialogue going. Where is the dialogue with law enforcement before things like this happen? Where is the dialogue about occupying physical space? We have to figure out how we move beyond the hashtag.”